From Fallujah to, Garmisch-Partenkirchen

Robots are often used in the media to instil fear with Frankenstein like stories of the scientist and corporation having gone to far with a humanoid machine destroying all before it. But on today’s battlefield, and for this US Army sponsored event, and for the war of tomorrow the robots will, apparently, look more like model planes.


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On a wind swept car park in the Bavarian town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, once home to the 1936 winter Olympics, 16 teams battled it out for a top prize that was the opportunity to bid for a $100,000 research contract. Unsurprisingly a lot of the teams were universities.


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From video goggles to video screens the operators, sometimes using remote control, others using autopilot software, guided their flying machines into the target area by hand or a waypoint, care of a click of the PC mouse. The mission was to loiter at an altitude, at which you should not be heard, and transmit back images of the target zone, and wait for the “terrorist” to wander in, “satchel explosive” under their arm. The micro air vehicles (MAV) had to operate for 30 minutes and the terrorist be clearly seen in the video picture.


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Not as easy as you’d think. A number of the MAVs had battery problems, others couldn’t cope with the wind gusts, others crashed due to pilot error. But every team was given ample opportunity to fly and spot the enemy. Autonomous flight was of key interest to the organisers and four teams all used the same open source software, Paparazzi. In fact they had collaborated on code but the experts were the French national civilian aviation school team. Ecole Nationale l’Aviation Civile (ENAC) developed Paparazzi from another open source software package, Micropilot, which is for helicopters. The ENAC team proved their expertise by having not one fixed wing MAV loiter autonomously around the target zone but two.


 


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However the winning team was from the University of Arizona (with a team member here pictured above holding up the winning MAV) with a well integrated design that looked robust and also used the Paparazzi software. With the right camouflage paint job and an improvement in its endurance and video picture quality the Arizona robot would be useful for any solider seeking to find out what was round the corner. The organisers were impressed with many of the entries and the performance their MAVs provided considering the technology the Army was using in Iraq and what it had to pay to get it. What this competition proved was that useful robot technology is cheap and can be rapidly developed. These autonomous surveillance drones will be key to any war and insurgents can expect to see them long before they encounter a solider.


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